City Dems Scramble to Replace Straight-Ticket Votes

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PHILADELPHIA Democratic organizer John Brady discusses the party’s efforts to promote downballot votes under this election’s dramatically changed new rules.

BY TONY WEST
A package of voting reforms enacted last year faces the Pennsylvania Democratic Party with one major challenge in addition to a basket of opportunities. In this election season, party activists are fighting to overcome that challenge – nowhere more than in Philadelphia, their largest source of hardcore supporters.

Act 77, which eased the deadline for registration and freed up absentee voting at will – moves thought to help Democrats – also eliminated the single-button straight-party voting option. As a result, downballot Dems risk losing the votes of sketchily informed supporters who know to select the D candidate for, say, president but don’t think to choose a ballot-mate running for State treasurer or representative.

Sacking the straight-ticket option was a core Republican demand in the General Assembly for a reform that required bipartisan cooperation. “We didn’t like the decision but it was part of the deal,” commented Democratic City Committee Deputy Executive Chair John Brady. Party strategists estimated it could potentially lose 5-7% of the statewide vote as a consequence.

That was before COVID-19, which kicked voting patterns into a cocked hat and threw all types of election workers into consternation.

In Philadelphia, strategists were tasked with coming up with new measures to spread Democratic love down the ticket to harvest their 7-1 registration advantage of 726,000 votes over Republicans here. They aren’t faced with the same mission as workers in the Keystone State’s conservative “T,” where Democrats are striving to boost a blue wave to elect a majority in the State Senate or House. Here in the city, all downballot incumbents are shoo-ins.

However, the state party dearly encourages the City of Brotherly Love to plump the numbers of Joe Torsella and Josh Shapiro, who seek re-election for State Treasurer and attorney general respectively, as well as Nina Ahmad, a Mount Airy resident running for the open office of auditor general. “We have a candidate in this race,” Brady pointed out. Moreover, jurisdictions that don’t elect their own to statewide office tend to lose statewide punch even among their fellow partisans.

Campaigning in the age of pandemic has benefited from some lessons since the chaotic June primary. “This has prompted a total modernization of City Committee,” Brady said.

Traditional door-knocking by ward committee people has become harder as social-distancing skills change face-to-face interactions between neighbors. Much effort has shifted to telemarketing and online media.

On the other hand, actual voting became easier. “This year, we had a 50-day window to work with voters” and convert them into votes, noted Brady. Mail-in votes, City Commission satellite offices and street dropboxes took pressure off the need to cajole low-information voters into voting the full ticket on Election Day proper.

Good news for city Democratic organizers: They have plenty of help running up to the general election.

Brady said, “We are lucky to have hundreds and hundreds of new volunteers. Young, old, Black, white, they are coming out of the woodwork.” State Committee and the national Biden campaign share DCC’s concern for the Philly vote and have dumped personnel and other resources into overall outreach.

THE DEMOCRATIC PARTY’S new tool for grassroots organizing in 2020.

Brady estimates there are 50 fulltime City Committee organizers on the job along with 50 state and national organizers. This team is led by Jimmy Harrity, executive director for DCC as well as State Sen. Sharif Street (D-N. Phila.), and by Tracy Hardy, a Street alumna who is state community-relations director. Other key leaders in the charge include Ward Leaders Bill Dolbow and Lou Agre with Elaine Petrosian and Colleen Puckett.

A mighty new weapon in the Democratic Party’s arsenal is VoteBuilder, a multipurpose tool that enables activists to isolate online or by print any set of party voters by address, contact information and history. It is essential for driving both telemarketers and street workers.

A sea of new workers placed new demands on the Democratic organizers. “We have trained all of them on our phone banks and on the street how to use scripts that enable them to promote the party ticket,” said Brady.

A political party’s organization is often described as a “machine.” There are, of course, many motivators for political affiliation that are far from mechanical. But Brady cited the analysis of DCC’s veteran Chairman Bob Brady (no relation): “A good machine works smart more than it works hard. Our purpose is to get out the vote and we should pursue this goal like professionals.”

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